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11.04.11

Why Gloria Cain Is Silent

Herman Cain’s wife was right to cancel a TV interview about her husband’s sexual-harassment charges, say experts, who argue that the aggrieved wife is a part almost no one plays well.

Gloria Cain apparently decided it just wasn’t worth the headache.

Last week, as her husband Herman struggled to tamp down allegations of sexual harassment—or, as Donald Trump likes to call it, Keeping the Workplace Fun—Gloria agreed to sit down with Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren for a little girl talk.

But by Thursday afternoon, as the drip, drip, drip of increasingly troublesome Herman the Slam Hound rumors were making the rounds, Gloria had called off the sit down.

Wise move. Because, barring an extraordinary showing by the famously private Mrs. Cain, odds are her national media debut would have done her flailing husband more harm than good.

For starters, the specific circumstances of Herman’s PR troubles are ill-suited for the kind of spousal dog-and-pony show that so commonly attends political sex scandals.

“The conventional wisdom in crisis management is to keep your mouth shut until you get all the facts and know what the truth is, then come out with one story that you repeat incessantly and that doesn’t change,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayers. “The Cain story has changed not just daily but almost hourly.”

“There are so many different versions of this story,” marvels crisis communications expert Larry Kamer. “What is she going to do? It’s an almost Herculean task they [were] asking her to take on.”

Even beyond the particulars of Team Cain’s ham-fisted damage-control effort, the playbook on political sex scandals has been shifting in recent years. These days, say the experts, trotting the missus out to vouch for a pol’s honor has lost much of its emotional oomph.

“At one point, having the wife or spouse in the situation stand up would show unity and trust and credibility,” says Susan Abrams, a veteran political and corporate image consultant based in Los Angeles. “I don’t think it’s as effective anymore, especially in the last five years with all of the incidents that have occurred,” she asserts. “People have seen it too many times.”

These days, say the experts, trotting the missus out to vouch for a pol’s honor has lost much of its emotional oomph.

People have also watched wives vouch for husbands who subsequently turned out to be hard-core pigs. Abrams cites Maria Shriver’s past defenses of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a prime example. When news came out that he had knocked up a family housekeeper, “People had sympathy for Maria. But they were basically thinking, ‘Yeah. We knew all along, why didn’t you?’”

The public still tunes in to watch pols and/or their wives perform their little dances of public contrition, says Abrams, though she contends that, at this point, it’s largely out of “morbid curiosity”—like watching a car wreck or Lindsey Lohan’s endless court saga.

But when it comes to restoring trust, she says, such displays are no longer worth much: “Nobody has credibility anymore.”

Former Clinton administration press secretary Joe Lockhart (whose boss was something of a pioneer in the field) agrees that the stand-by-your-man appearance ain’t what it used to be: “It has been overused and non-authentic to the point that it just isn’t valued.”

Worse still, a bad showing by a spouse carries its own risks. Exhibit A: Silda Spitzer.

When New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s hooker habit hit the news, Silda went through the motions of the dutiful wife, standing by her man during his public mea culpa. But far from coming across as supportive or even stoic, the visibly pained Mrs. Spitzer looked as though she couldn’t decide whether to burst into sobs or punch Eliot in the face. Cutting such a beautiful, elegantly tragic figure, Silda managed only to drive home what a spectacular heel her husband had been.

“In the Spitzer case it backfired,” says Lockhart. “She was so physically uncomfortable. She undermined the message he was trying to deliver.”

Indeed, the much-discussed Silda spectacle of 2008 seems to have been a turning point of sorts in the evolution of sex scandals. Since then, naughty pols are as likely as not to face the cameras solo. South Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. John Ensign, Rep. Anthony Weiner—all did their pressers of shame without their better halves.

 “What’s much more valuable now is to be honest and say, ‘To the extent that there’s a mess here, it’s my job to clean it up and not drag my family into it,’” contends Lockhart, who himself welcomes the shift.

“Sometimes, what is the decent thing to do is also the best strategy. That’s not often the case in politics,” he allows, “but sometimes.”